Elkhart Housing Authority
1396 Benham Ave. Elkhart Indiana 46516
“There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” That memorable line from “The Wizard of Oz” has become a mantra to Tiffany McNeal since her real life fairy tale provided her with a happy ending: a home of her own.
McNeal, 32, and her three children moved into their newly built Elkhart home in early July. While the move itself was hectic, McNeal said the planning, packing, and all that preceded it was well worth the effort. Each family member having their own space was an instant blessing, she explained, adding that having their own yard is the icing on the cake.
McNeal actually began working and saving for her own home five years ago. That’s when she enrolled in the Elkhart Housing Authority’s Family Self-Sufficiency Program. The FSS Program is designed to help participants of the Housing Choice Voucher Program set personal goals, such as homeownership, and provide them with the skills and resources, as well as a mentor, to help them reach their goals.
While participants can choose from a variety of goals that head them toward self-sufficiency, such as obtaining a college degree, increasing their credit score, or earning a “living wage,” owning a home of their own is what most clients aim for. That is true of McNeal, who was attracted to the FSS Program by its promise of personal, professional and financial assistance.
McNeal was working at a local day care center when she began the program. After looking at her options for continued employment, she decided to enroll in college and work toward an Associate’s Degree in early child education. It was a tough decision to make, but one that paid off in the long run. McNeal had to initially decrease her work hours at the day care in order to attend school and study. The reduction in her rent provided by her Housing Choice Voucher allowed her to accomplish this goal while still supporting her children.
Once she obtained her degree, McNeal returned to full-time status at the day care center. She also began earning a higher wage since she now had additional child care skills. McNeal has moved from being a floater, a part-time employee who moves from room to room, to being a lead teacher with her own classroom. She now works with the same group of children each day.
Getting through college, as well as completing the financial and homeownership classes required of all FSS participants, was not a cake walk. “There were several times I thought about giving up,” McNeal acknowledged. “But then I would think about how that would impact my kids. I didn’t want to take steps back. I wanted to move forward.
“I had to remind myself of my goals,” McNeal continued, adding she found a way to commit to her goals on a daily basis. She decorated her apartment with inspirational quotes and hung sticky notes in places she would see them, such as her bathroom mirror and kitchen window, listing the specific tasks she needed to complete that week.
McNeal added that she appreciated the homework sheets she was given at each FSS meeting outlining the assignments she needed to complete before the next meeting. “They helped a great deal,” McNeal said. “I knew exactly what I needed to accomplish each month. I would just check items off the list as I completed them.”
One of the major tasks for McNeal was increasing her credit score so she would be able to qualify for a home loan. She credited LaCasa’s financial education class for teaching her how to “snowball” her outstanding debts. With this method, you continue to pay the minimum amount due on each of your bills and pay any additional money you can on your smallest bill. Once that bill is paid, you target the next smallest bill and you now have additional money to use as you’re no longer paying on the previous debt.
McNeal said the Money for Life class also taught her about sacrificing some of her “immediate wants,” such as a new wardrobe or a vacation, in order to attain her ultimate goal of homeownership. “The class really got me thinking about credit repair and the changes I needed to make now if I wanted my own home in the future,” she stated.
McNeal also credited her FSS coordinators with helping keep her on track when things got tough. “They were there to answer all of my questions along the way,” McNeal said. “They were also able to point me to several resources in the community that I was able to receive support from.”
One of those agencies was Habitat for Humanity. After McNeal cleaned up her credit, she applied for, and was accepted into, Habitat’s home building program. By providing 250 hours of community service, with at least 100 hours of those spent on home construction, McNeal was able to move into a newly built home that she helped design. McNeal got to choose the lot her house sets on, the layout of the home, and many of the home’s features, such as the color scheme, carpets, and cabinetry.
While McNeal’s children most enjoy having their own bedrooms, her favorite room in the new house is the large kitchen with all new appliances. “I’ve always had tiny kitchens,” McNeal explained. “It was so crowded. I could only have one child helping me out. Now we can all be involved in making meals or the kids can do their homework at the table and I can talk to them while I’m making dinner. I just love how open it is.”
The kids said they’ve had fun decorating their bedrooms the way they want, including painting their walls any color they choose. “When you live in an apartment, everything is very neutral,” McNeal said, pointing to the colorful designs that now adorn her children’s bedroom walls. “They feel so much more comfortable now. It’s their personal space.”
The children said they are also enjoying having a yard of their own to play in. McNeal said the family has lived in some apartment complexes where she was afraid to let the kids play outside. “We’ve lived in some scary places,” she stated. “I feel so safe here. The neighbors have been very friendly and welcoming. Several of them even brought us water and lemonade while the house was under construction.”
McNeal said providing her children, who have always lived in apartments, with a home of their own has come with an unexpected surprise: a sense of pride. McNeal said she is willing to share her story with others so they too can experience this feeling. “You don’t know what you can accomplish if you don’t try,” she stated emphatically. “You just need to be a little bit motivated to start. Then, as you begin achieving small successes, you become motivated to work even harder.
“When I started the FSS Program,” McNeal continued, “five years seemed like such a long time down the road and a home of my own seemed like a pipe dream. Now I feel like everything is possible.”